Buffalo have always been important to Kansans – so much so that in 1955 the buffalo became the state animal. A few years earlier, Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite song, “Home on the Range,” had become the state song. The first line to this song, “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,” was penned in Smith County during the early 1870s, just 40 years after Western artist George Catlin began his study of the buffalo.
The transformative and historical works by Catlin have been arranged in a traveling exhibit that was organized by the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which holds more than 400 works by Catlin. As part of this exhibit, 40 of Catlin’s oils will hang against green-black walls at the Wichita Museum of Art.
“He’s one of a handful of artists who went into the territory,” said Patricia McDonnell, the museum’s director. “This American style of art connects with the overall concept of American identity.”
Prior to the steady stream of Europeans to the Plains, there were an estimated 20 million bison in Kansas. By the turn of the 20th century, the American buffalo population had diminished to around 500 nationwide. Catlin, an East Coast lawyer, saw the trend and wanted to document American Indians and the buffalo they used for food, clothing and housing.
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“He wanted to draw attention to the way Indians were treated by Americans and our government,” said Joan Carpenter Troccoli, a Catlin scholar. “He defined a lot of the things we worry about today.”
Troccoli, who holds a Ph.D. in art history and has written several books on Western painters of the 1800s, including two on Catlin, said that Catlin spoke of both nature and responsibility.
“All painters that came later were influenced by George Catlin,” said Troccoli, the founding director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum.
Because of his lack of training and quick brushstrokes, Catlin’s paintings have an unfinished quality. Troccoli calls him “an avant garde artist.”
Smithsonian curator emeritus George Gurney names Catlin’s paintings the largest collection of pre-photographic art pieces on American Indians.
Wichitans will be able to view three works that the Wichita museum owns. These oil paintings will be hung outside of the Smithsonian exhibit.
In addition to portraits of the single, regal buffalo, the exhibit will contain a portrait of a Native American and interactions between Native Americans and the bison.
“He records a way of life out in the West that he already understood to be fading,” McDonnell said. “He shows an Indian encampment and two Native Americans attired for the Buffalo Dance.”
Catlin had wanted his works to be held by the U.S. government. This was done posthumously. Although he traveled throughout Europe, this artist who documented the 19th century American West continued to paint and explore what he saw on the prairie. Even when not on the Plains, Catlin used the same sparse palate, demonstrating a thread throughout his work.
Troccoli will give a lecture on the influential artist on Feb. 20 at the museum. On March 5, the museum will hold a panel discussion with Native American Elder Bob Marley; Jim Hoy, a professor of English and director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University; and a representative from the Nature Conservancy.
Because Catlin’s works touch on so many aspects of American life, the museum wants to help viewers not only appreciate the aesthetics but also understand the historical, social and environmental aspects of what he painted.
“He’s a major cultural and historical figure,” Troccoli said. “He created some irreplaceable records.”